The humble cuppa - a symbol of diminishing rights?

13 Apr, 2015
Opinion piece by Professor Judy McGregor, Head of the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology

By Professor Judy McGregor, head of the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology

Is New Zealand losing its reputation as a human rights leader?  Have we become “morally mute” about important social justice obligations?

New Zealand was once a world leader in advancing employment protections, such as the eight hour working day. In 1840 carpenter Samuel Parnell refused to work more than eight hours a day when erecting a store for his merchant employer. A meeting of Wellington carpenters pledged to “maintain the eight-hour working day and anyone offending should be ducked into the harbour”. Today we are again fighting over the rights of workers to smokos.

Multi-national company, Cotton On, swiftly retreated from its stance on negotiating smokos after calculating the impact of consumer power to boycott their products as a result of bad publicity whipped up by social media. The row over smokos, the weakening of collective bargaining and the ability to reduce pay in response to partial strikes, are all evidence of the recent rolling back of human rights of employees. The effects on vulnerable workers of the 2014 Employment Relations Amendment Act are now starting to take effect. The rationale for the legislation is flexibility in the workplace but employees know that flexibility, while seductive as a concept, rarely translates into benefits for them. It often prejudices low paid workers and compensatory measures do not materialise. 

The humble cuppa has become a potent symbol of employment protections hard fought for but now in danger of being forfeited.  This dilution of human rights protections for workers is prompting increasing attention from international human rights treaty bodies.  A new report, Fault lines: Human rights in New Zealand, based on three years of research by researchers at Auckland University of Technology and the University of Waikato, suggests that serious fault lines are appearing in New Zealand’s human rights record, particularly in relation to economic, social and cultural rights. Employment protections and progress on issues such as equal pay, extending paid parental leave and ensuring employment equity for disadvantaged young people trying to find jobs, are critical to New Zealand’s human rights reputation.

Fault Lines looks at New Zealand’s reporting against the six international human rights treaties that it has signed and ratified. They relate to civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, race relations, women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of disabled people. The report concludes that New Zealand has become better at talking about human rights than walking the talk and implementing the promises made internationally. It uses examples such as New Zealand constantly telling the world that it was the first nation state to grant women the vote, but not following up on recommendations from the United Nations about equal pay or reducing the unacceptable levels of violence against women.

It lists 13 recommendations which could help New Zealand retain human rights leadership including a new parliamentary select committee to deal with human rights; the urgent repeal of non-human rights compliant legislation to reinstate the rights of all New Zealanders to complain about discrimination; and a comprehensive rewrite of human rights legislation.

The recommendations also suggest a new more proactive role for the Māori Affairs Select Committee in monitoring New Zealand’s response to the United Nations concerns about closing the inequality gaps. More New Zealanders should be nominated for significant UN human rights treaty bodies and journalists need better training in the reporting of treaty body reports which remain largely invisible to the public.

Fault Lines examines each of the six treaties and New Zealand’s engagement in the Universal Periodic Review, an overview of human rights progress. The report is based on interviews in New Zealand and at the United Nations, case law, analysis of treaty body reports and personal observation.
Overall, the report concludes that New Zealand has to work harder to protect human rights for all of us. We can start by ducking in the harbour those joyless workplaces where time for a cuppa has to be negotiated.

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